February 16th, 2007

New Impotence Ads Draw Fire -- Just Like the Old Ones

By Avery Johnson
Wall Street Journal

In December alone, an ad for impotence drug Viagra aired at around 9 p.m. during “Prancer,” a G-rated movie about a young girl who nurses one of Santa’s reindeers back to health; another spot for rival medicine Levitra appeared during an afternoon showing of the comedy “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure;” and another for Cialis graced an early-evening presentation of the holiday classic “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Despite a pledge from the pharmaceutical industry to be more careful with prescription-drug advertising, impotence-drug makers are sliding back to tactics that drew widespread criticism from patients, doctors and regulators. A pediatricians’ organization is calling for no impotence ads during hours when children are likely to be watching, and a major AIDS group has expressed concern that ads have become too suggestive again, encouraging people who aren’t suffering from erectile dysfunction to use the drugs recreationally.

One commercial coming under fire is for Pfizer Inc.’s Viagra, the market leader, that shows a man and woman watching baseball on television. When the woman walks away and beckons the man to join her, he jumps up and pops a videotape into the VCR. “They say in life there’s only time for one great passion ... unless you’re really clever,” intones a voiceover.

“The ad is very smug and coy and suggestive in a way that’s not useful for children and adolescents,” says Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico and the co-author of a recent American Academy of Pediatrics report on the commercials.

Pfizer defends the ads. It says that the cable network showing “Prancer” was aware of the company’s restrictions on audience and that it was composed of 95% adults. “In developing the current campaign, our goal was to strike the right balance between motivating men to take positive action for their health and remaining sensitive to the environment,” the company says in an email. “We believe the campaign achieves both goals.”

The pharmaceutical industry implemented its self-imposed advertising guidelines for marketing prescription drugs directly to patients last year. The drug makers promised to target audiences that are 80% adult, defined as over 18 years old. Pfizer and the other impotence-drug makers said they would go one better and target only audiences that are 90% or more adult.

“They’re not all sticking to this,” says David Kweskin, senior vice president of TNS, a marketing-research firm. “It’s tough to spend that kind of money without some slippage.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for the erectile-dysfunction commercials to be restricted to after 10 p.m. so that children wouldn’t view sex as “a recreational sport.”

The makers of impotence drugs say they are abiding by their guidelines, and have eschewed major sporting events like the Super Bowl this year to steer clear of younger audiences. Part of the problem, though, is that ad placement isn’t always under their control. Advertisers have somewhat less say about when and where their ads can appear on cable channels than they do on traditional networks. That’s because advertisers can purchase the exact program on which they want their ad to appear on network TV but generally purchase less-specific blocks of time on cable. Nonetheless, advertisers often have an option to alert cable channels in advance when a specific program isn’t appropriate for their ads.

For example, Kindra Strupp, a spokeswoman for Eli Lilly & Co., the maker of Cialis, says the ad on “Miracle on 34th Street” was an isolated mistake by the cable channel: “We would not intentionally buy advertising during programming for which the content was not appropriate to the audience watching. This serves no one’s interest and does not make good business sense.”

And Julie Lux—a spokeswoman for Schering-Plough Corp., which jointly promotes Levitra in the U.S. with GlaxoSmithKline PLC—says “We use our best efforts to target our ... television advertising to avoid audiences that are not age appropriate.” Levitra was developed by Bayer AG and Glaxo.

Some impotence-drug makers have recently ramped up spending on advertising in an attempt to jump-start the category’s faltering sales—which have topped out around $3.2 billion a year world-wide, short of the $4 billion some analysts had predicted by now. Despite its aggressive cost-cutting in other marketing areas, Pfizer spent almost $35 million on Viagra ads in the third quarter of last year, almost 50% more than the year-earlier period, according to the most recent data available from TNS. Spending on Levitra quintupled in the third quarter of 2006 over the 2005 period. Both companies had pulled broadcast ads during parts of 2005 over regulatory concerns, though spending on other forms of advertising continued. Drug companies still are spending less on the ads for impotence medicines than in 2004, when Cialis and Levitra had just launched.

After Pfizer began selling Viagra in 1998, it took an educational approach: Ads featuring former presidential contender Bob Dole made discussing impotence acceptable. But as competitors crowded the market, the industry’s largest drug maker changed gears with a campaign that featured a man and woman shopping for lingerie. The man seemed to grow blue horns when the Viagra logo appeared behind his head, and a voice called him a “Wild Thing.”

The FDA criticized Pfizer for not disclosing what condition Viagra treats and what its major side effects are. The following year, the FDA sanctioned Levitra’s makers for a similarly suggestive Levitra spot.

After the companies removed their ads for a time, Pfizer returned in late 2005 with low-key spots that featured two men in a telephone call center that kept the dialogue to educating patients about impotence, never mentioning Viagra. Levitra too re-entered cautiously without its brand name attached to ads and a message focused on the correlation between impotence and other diseases. But in recent months, brand names have returned to Viagra and Levitra ads.

Lilly has been the most consistent of the three in its advertising approach for Cialis, which has focused on older couples and the drug’s 36-hour period of effectiveness. Even it toned down its message early last year, when it decided to feature a doctor reading the list of side effects. Then, it pulled the doctor, who seemed to interrupt the commercial.

In response to ads like the Viagra baseball spot, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a large operator of free AIDS clinics, sued Pfizer last month, alleging that the ads promote recreational use of Viagra by men who aren’t impotent. Just last week, it sent a letter to Pfizer’s chief executive, Jeffrey B. Kindler, banning the company’s sales representatives from pitching any of their products at the group’s offices. Pfizer said in a statement that it does not promote Viagra for recreational use.

Despite the criticism, the new wave of impotence-drug ads seems to be helping sales. World-wide sales of impotence drugs ticked up 12.2% in 2006, according to Catherine Arnold, an analyst at Credit Suisse. Viagra sales held steady in 2006 from 2005, while fourth-quarter 2006 sales notched up 5% from the year earlier quarter.

The companies say they are taking the industry guidelines very seriously. Nonetheless, the Cialis ad appeared on “Miracle on 34th Street,” according to Video Monitoring Service, a firm that tracks ad placement. Last month, a Levitra commercial ran during a 5:19 p.m. showing of the movie “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.” In December, the commercial ran during an Inspector Gadget movie around noon on a Sunday.

A spokesman for Rainbow Media—which owns the AMC channel on which these movies, as well as “Prancer” and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” appeared—declined to comment.

The renewed attention over the marketing of impotence drugs directly to consumers comes at a time when senators in both parties are focusing on restricting those kind of ads for all drugs, which was on track to hit a record $4.5 billion in 2006.

Earlier this month, Sens. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) and Michael Enzi (R., Wyo.) introduced a bill that proposes new restrictions on direct-to-consumer advertising. On Jan. 31, Sens. Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) and Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) proposed legislation that would require drug makers to submit new ads to the FDA 30 days before they air.


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